Many of the people who visit the research library at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) come with a common research goal: gathering documentation about the history of a residential or commercial property. Researchers searching for house and building history are motivated by a range of interests, including historic preservation and architectural history, documenting change to a neighborhood over time, and a desire to connect with the city’s past residents. OHS is not an official records repository for property-specific information, such as deeds and permit records; only a small percentage of the structures in Oregon are represented in our collections, and they are rarely identified in ways that make them easy to locate. Despite daunting odds of success, the thrill of uncovering the past in an archival box entices many researchers to keep coming back. The research library’s extensive photograph, manuscript, and maps collections continue to draw in people hoping to be the lucky ones who find history that is missing in a property’s official government records — the lived experiences of former occupants. Those missing pieces could show up in a photograph showing the faces of the past residents, the landscaping, or the interior details of a home as it existed at different points in time.
For Tammy McCarty and Nicholas Stark, a restoration project on the porch of their 1905 foursquare house on the Willamette Bluffs in North Portland prompted their house history research. When McCarty and Stark moved into the home eight years ago, the property came with a memory box filled with mementos dating back to the first residents of the house. The memory box was originally found during a renovation in the 1980s, housed in a box of old papers in the attic floor, and subsequent generations of residents continued to add their own memories to the box. This connection to past residents inspired McCarty and Stark to remain true to the original character of their house. Their goal as owners and stewards of the home is to, “make the house worth it to somebody wanting to live in it 100 years from now.”
As part of the planning for the extensive restorations to the porch, McCarty visited OHS in search of anything that might tell them more about the house as it existed 100 years ago. As she sorted through numerous library collections in search of elusive photographs of her home, McCarty quickly discovered that house history research is a bit of a treasure hunt: “I searched, and searched, and searched. I would say months. Because I really wanted to find a picture of the house.” Like many hopeful researchers, McCarty learned a lot about the Willamette Bluffs and the Overlook neighborhood, but the closest photographic documentation she was able to locate was an aerial image from the 1940s that included the house in the far distance. Her luck changed a few months ago when a friend sent a message saying, “this looks an awful lot like your place,” along with a link to an OHS blog post titled, “A 1905 “Slice of Life” View of Portland’s East Side.” McCarty and Stark recognized their house immediately. Even the cloud of steam rising from the train in the background echoed their familiar view of the Willamette River.
This story of serendipitously finding what you are looking for, just as you are about to give up, is a common theme in archival research. It is part of what makes the process so rewarding. In a world where so much information is instantly accessible, the slow, methodical, and at times frustrating process of conducting archival research is a refreshing change of pace. Due to their fragile nature and because they were part of an unprocessed collection, these photographs of McCarty’s house were not available for research when she initially visited OHS. Ongoing work to process and digitize collections, such as the glass negatives of early Portland residential scenes, has made accessible this piece of Portland’s residential architectural history.
This same sense of serendipity is shared across the desk by the archivists caring for the collections. So much of our job is untangling the many lost pieces of provenance and context that help us connect researchers with the right boxes in the collections. We often do not have the time to follow every thread to unlock the full story behind each photograph, but community sleuths have helped us identify locations for several photographs in the Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes collection.
For people interested in conducting house history research, do not let the long odds deter you. The research library has recently published a new House and Building History research guide, and reference staff are here to help you get started. While you might not find the exact information you are looking for, you may come away knowing more about the history of the community where you live.
Laura Cray and Ilana Sol’s Other Posts
A 1905 “Slice-of-Life” View of Portland’s East Side
September 21, 2021
Scenes from the Rails: How the SP&S Railway Transformed the Pacific Northwest
May 25, 2021
Going Afield: Mobile Photography Studios of Early Oregon Photographers
March 23, 2021
Trapped in the Columbia Gorge: Documenting a Train Rescue during the Great Winter Storm of 1884–1885
December 15, 2020
Picturing the Columbia: The Photography of Sarah Hall Ladd and Lily E. White
October 27, 2020
Documenting Demolition and Change: A Look at Minor White’s Photographs of Portland’s Old Town and Waterfront
May 19, 2020
Launching the Digital Production Lab: Part 2
March 17, 2020
Launching the Digital Production Lab: Part 1
October 15, 2019
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